A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on May 27, 2012.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15; Romans 8:22-27
Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” This statement wisely acknowledges that we are always communicating some message in some way, and sometimes with words.
Every Sunday I see this principle at work when I preach because your body language speaks volumes. Your face may tell me you are interested, or pretending to be. Your body may tell me you didn’t get enough sleep last night. Your excessive movement may tell me you are bored, or ready to get out of here. Your closed eyes may tell me you checked out a long time ago, though I tell myself you are in deep meditation!
Words are vital to our existence as human beings, but they can’t tell the whole story because some human experiences are too deep for words. Words can’t adequately explain what it means to love somebody. Or grieve the loss of a loved one, as a number of families who lost loved ones in combat will do this Memorial Day weekend.
All of us have seen elderly couples married 50 or 60 years sitting side by side in rocking chairs, holding hands. No words pass between them because they know intuitively what each other is thinking and feeling. Communication runs deep and wordlessly between these two, and one hand clasped in another says it all.
On this Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our world, our church, and our souls, we are reminded that the Spirit of God is speaking to us and through us at all times, and occasionally with words. God uses words, of course, when they suit his purpose. He literally spoke creation into existence. But the author of words is not limited to words, and the Spirit of God does some of his best work at a level too deep for words.
Of all the New Testament writers, Luke tells us the most about Pentecost. Luke presents key moments of the gospel story in sequence, moving from Easter to the ascension of Jesus, and then to Pentecost, all within a fifty day period of time. Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is the classic scripture for today, and must-reading for every Christian who wants to understand how the church was born.
But Luke is not alone is describing the dramatic work of the Pentecostal Holy Spirit. So do John and Paul. While Luke focuses on the dramatic events that took place in Jerusalem, John and Paul chronicle the work of the Spirit in the human heart.
Much of what is said in John’s gospel about the Holy Spirit is spoken by Jesus during his five farewell addresses to his disciples. The disciples are deeply distressed to hear that Jesus will soon leave them in order to perform the work he must do. As Jesus attempts to encourage his anxious disciples, he speaks at length about the Holy Spirit.
He reminds them that the Spirit also known as the Advocate, Comforter, and Helper, can only come to them after he leaves. Once the Spirit arrives, says Jesus, he will dwell with them and never leave them alone. And he will teach them, in part by reminding them of what Jesus said when during his earthly ministry.
Along the way, the Holy Spirit will join the disciples in bearing witness to Jesus. In fact, the reason we have the New Testament is because the Holy Spirit unleashed at Pentecost inspired individuals to write down the story and words of Jesus that bear witness to him to this day. At the same time, the Spirit will convict the world, proving it wrong in its assessment of Jesus as a failed, misguided messiah who died on a cross as the enemy of the state. As Jesus interprets God, so the Spirit will interpret Jesus accurately to all who will open their minds to the gospel truth.
Speaking of truth, Jesus offers this intriguing word in John 16: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, and…will declare to you the things that are to come.”
For centuries scholars have debated about those “many things” Jesus left unsaid. Notice, by the way, Jesus’ wise insight that people can’t or won’t hear certain things until they are ready to hear them. But what are those things the disciples could not bear? And does this mean the Spirit can teach us new things in the 21st century the disciples weren’t ready for in the 1st century?
Actually, the Apostle Peter is a good example of somebody not ready to hear everything Jesus could have said in the moment. For example, Peter was not ready to hear that Gentiles as well as Jews would be welcome to enter the new kingdom of God being established through Jesus. Peter would have to get to the other side of Easter and Pentecost to be ready for that, concept and even then the Spirit would have to speak to him through a dramatic vision to open his mind to the traumatic truth that God plays no ethnic favorites in his kingdom.
The Spirit can and does continue to reveal new truth. But that doesn’t mean we can jump on any bandwagon or connect any cause to the Christian faith. Because whatever new truth we claim must be consistent with the Jesus of history revealed through the scriptures and the witness of the Spirit.
The hellish institution of slavery existed for thousands of years (and still does in some forms!), and even people of faith owned slaves. 18th and 19th Century Baptists in the American south didn’t hesitate to use scripture to defend their ownership of slaves. But the day came when the Spirit of Jesus said, “No more,” and after many trials and tribulations the practice of owning fellow human beings finally came to an end in this country.
Similarly people have used the bible to justify treating women as second-class citizens in the world and in the church. But I believe the Spirit of God has been saying in recent years, “No more.” And though this struggle is still playing itself out, I predict the day will come when one-half of the human race will no longer be routinely denied senior positions of leadership in the church.
Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul has much to say about this same Pentecostal Holy Spirit. In some ways, Paul’s treatment of the Spirit penetrates even deeper into the depths of our souls, where the Spirit operates in ways impossible to understand or explain.
Paul explains that every Christ-follower possesses what he calls “the first fruits of the Spirit.” That’s why we find ourselves frustrated with life on this earth. It’s the Spirit of God within us that makes us restless even on our best days, because that Holy Spirit whispers to our spirits that there is a reality of life far superior to anything we can experience here. As it happens, we can’t fully live into that reality this side of the grave. So, Paul says, we must wait for it patiently. But thankfully the Spirit helps us even in the waiting, fueling the hope that keeps us going even when there seems to be no hope.
Then comes one of the most majestic and mysterious passages of the New Testament. Likewise, writes Paul, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Even the mighty Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary the world has ever known, had his bad days. Evidently, there were days when life became so challenging, so overwhelming that this expert on prayer who wrote masterfully on the subject didn’t have the first clue about how or what to pray. Reflecting on his own experience, Paul says that in those moments of weakness and anguish we can count on another intercessor to pray for us. That intercessor is none other than the Holy Spirit who invaded this world on the Day of Pentecost.
It’s helpful to remember that the ancient Jews believed both human beings and heavenly beings could intercede for us. Abraham, Moses, and a host of other human intercessors come before God to pray for his people in the Old Testament. But in the first chapter of Zechariah, we read that an angel of the Lord prays to the Lord for the restoration of the people of Israel from exile.
In that vein Paul has no problem declaring that no less than the Holy Spirit of God makes intercession for us at the throne of God. Of course this same Paul contends later in Romans 8 that Jesus regularly intercedes for us at the right hand of God. But somehow, the image of the Spirit praying for me underneath my own prayers really grabs my attention. In moments when I feel so helpless and weak as I pray, that’s precisely when the Spirit of God joins me in prayer. Or to paraphrase one commentator, the divine in me prays to the divine above.
And while I often struggle mightily to find the right words, the Spirit communicates with sighs too deep for words.
This week I read an article written by a preaching professor that helps me understand what Paul is getting at. This professor explains that in his living room sits two large musical instruments. In one corner stands a bass violin. In the far corner of the room stands a baby grand piano.
Interestingly enough, says the professor, if you hit the low “E” key on the piano, something happens on the other side of the room. Without any physical manipulation, the bass violin will sound. Thanks to something called “sympathetic resonance”, the low “E” string on the bass violin vibrates. Play the “E” key on the piano, and the bass violin comes to life—without a single touch.
Here’s what I love about the Holy Spirit. It’s the Spirit that creates sympathetic resonance between God and me. Without so much as a word, God’s Spirit strikes a chord of divine love, and my soul comes to life. God’s Spirit connects with mine and the next thing I know my heart is vibrating with incredible resonance, communicating deeply with God—wordlessly.
Like a husband and wife of many years sitting on the porch together holding hands, God and I huddle together in silence, as he loves me at a level too deep for words. The Spirit guides me into truth, sometimes with words, sometimes with no more than impressions. The Spirit comforts me, sometimes with words, and sometimes by a heavenly hug that says more than words ever could.
What makes this all the more profound is the Spirit knows me far better than I know myself. So, of course, the Spirit will pray not for what I want but what I need to be a true follower of Christ. In my confusion and weakness, I want cotton candy, but the Spirit prays for the Bread of Life. I want a stiff drink, but the Spirit prays for Living Water. The one who searches and knows my heart does the praying, and if I welcome God’s answers to these prayers, I will be made whole.
Most of us grew up believing prayer was all about our talking and God listening. But what if the most powerful, profound praying takes place silently at another level, a level too deep for words?
Thomas Merton, a Catholic mystic and devotional writer, once wrote that a monk, praying in silence, in emptiness and humility, does more healing work for the world than 3 or 300 politicians talking around peace tables.
That can’t be true…or can it?!